Ray Russell

Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) speaks during a Dec. 10 town hall event.

BOONE — N.C. House Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) recently gave a rundown of legislative activity during his first year and what constituents might expect in the next year.

Russell participated in a town hall discussion Dec. 10 at the Boone Town Council chambers with community members, where he started with a brief overview of what he called the “good and the bad” of the legislature’s activity this year. Russell held a similar town hall meeting in Ashe County on Dec. 4.

The “good” portion of activity, he said, included funding of the new Raise the Age law, updating the sexual abuse and sexual assault laws, funding for disaster relief after hurricanes and natural disasters, funding for rape kit testing that had been backlogged, the passing of a small business/association health care act and rural broadband expansion.

Russell added that he was the first Democratic freshman to get a bill signed into law over the reworking of voter IDs in North Carolina. Additionally, he said he played a part in restoring SNAP funding that had been cut from AppalCART.

He then listed what he feels were the “bad” actions of the legislature, noting areas in which the state did not progress or actions that were not passed. For example, Russell said there had not been any meaningful action in the area of education with regards to modifying Read to Achieve, teacher and non-certified personnel raises, school assessments or what he called an “$8 billion backlog of school construction projects.”

N.C. Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock), Russell’s counterpart in the Senate and co-chair of the Senate’s education committee, responded to some of Russell’s statements related to education. She said the legislature passed bills on Read to Achieve reforms and teacher and non-certified personnel raises but that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed them.

Ballard added that the legislature passed a bill she sponsored — the Testing Reduction Act of 2019 — that cuts down on the number of tests that students must take throughout the year, with further testing reduction currently under review. And she said that the budget passed by the legislature would have provided $4.4 billion over the next 10 years to build new schools and upgrade existing ones — including $11.2 million in Watauga County over the next two years — but that the budget was vetoed by Cooper. Senate leaders did not bring a veto override to a vote this year.

“We’ve taken action with thoughtful considerations and input from all stakeholders,” Ballard said. “The only reason hammers aren’t hitting nails right now is that Cooper vetoed the budget, and refuses to sign any budget unless the legislature first passes Medicaid expansion.”

Other areas that Russell said did not see any change were environmental issues (such as polluter pay, where a party responsible for producing pollution is responsible for paying for the damage done or other pollution prevention), an NC Sunshine Act that he proposed (that would include live-streaming of the legislature and committees) that did not happen, nonpartisan redistricting, school calendar flexibility as well as a farm bill.

To Russell, the greatest failure of this legislature was not passing a Medicaid expansion, he said. He noted that the state also still does not have an official passed budget. Many of the audience members were curious about the budget and where the state was at in the process.

Russell explained that a law passed several years ago allows expenditures to continue at current levels if a consensus on an overall budget is not reached. Since then, Russell said the state has since passed several “mini budgets” that the legislature could compromise on – such as a 5 percent state employee raise (for positions like corrections officers, highway patrol and Department of Transportation). But this did not include employees in the community college sector, University of North Carolina system, teachers or other public school personnel.

Other “mini budgets” that were passed included funding for the aforementioned rape kits, disaster recovery and rural broadband. Russell noted that the rural broadband funding would not help Watauga since funding is for tier one counties, and Watauga is considered to be in tier three.

“Some day we’re going to get rid of that tier system,” Russell said. “The tier system was never intended to be used for that kind of funding.”

Russell said he was fearful of what he thinks may happen with the state budget in terms of Medicaid expansion. He said a Republican bill out of the House was a compromise bill, but that it never was brought to a vote.

“That bill, while it’s not everything I hoped it would be, it at least got enough done,” Russell said. “I could be supportive of that bill, but it never came to the floor. My fear is now that we’re going to go back in January and basically the Republican leadership will gut that bill and turn it into something that is a shell of what it was and make it something I can’t support.”

Additionally, he said he had a hunch that the state could reach a budget conclusion in January, compromised “enough where everyone can claim victory and at the same time blame the other side.”

Boone Town Council Member Loretta Clawson asked Russell if he thought the funding for AppalCART would be increased as the population of Appalachian State University grows. Russell replied by saying he didn’t think the state funding would change in that regard, but that he hoped the university would add more funding as AppalCART ridership increased.

Another audience member asked Russell about the legislature’s plans concerning climate change, to which Russell replied, “There are still plenty of people who would deny existence of climate change in the legislature.” Russell said that a representative can bring up climate change, but that most wouldn’t continue the conversation.

Russell noted the executive orders issued by Cooper, but said it is the legislature that controls the “purse strings.”

“For us to really address this, it’s going to have to take a change in leadership,” Russell said.

An additional question posed to Russell dealt with cemeteries on private land. The audience member shared concerns about North Carolina not offering enough protection to property owners with land that also encompasses a private cemetery. The audience member was bothered that people are coming onto his property to visit the cemetery without his consent.

Russell said he couldn’t provide many answers on the topic, but that it could be an area for the legislature to work on.

“It’s a privilege to serve you in Raleigh,” Russell said. “I have given this job every ounce of mental and physical energy I have. Anna (Meadows) and I have worked hard to communicate to all of our constituents.”

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